Monday, 12 November 2012

Shakespeare in 3D...

Last week I finally made it to the ‘Staging the World’ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s only got another week to go, by the way, and it's well worth it:

The exhibition is mainly dedicated to artefacts from the period in which Shakespeare was writing. There is one of the very few surviving examples of his handwriting, as well as copies of the First Folio. (There’s also the modern collected edition smuggled onto Robben Island by anti-apartheid campaigners. It’s incredibly moving to see Nelson Mandela’s signature scrawled beside a passage on the nature of tyranny from ‘Julius Caesar’.) And then there are the maps - extraordinarily detailed visual descriptions of London (and Venice), drawn by hand or printed in intricate details from wood blocks. There are items of clothing from the time, paintings, swords and daggers, old clocks… And in all of it, an overwhelming sense of ‘making’ – a physical engagement with the materials of the time.

It’s often said that Shakespeare’s plays are all about the ear (you went to ‘hear’ a play, etc.). But what struck me was the sheer ‘materiality’ of theatre, and how this is one of its essential qualities. The magic of prose and poetry seems to derive from its ability to translate marks on the page into images and thought. Fine art is about texture, and creates the illusion of three-dimensionality. You can look all the way around a sculpture, but sculptures rarely move and speak. Film is all about the eye. Theatre is sometimes described as a metaphorical medium, but there is something literal about it too. Through costume, set, light and shade and the sheer fact of the actors’ presence, theatre speaks to our world in the physical language of our world.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Escaping the city…

As well as Martin Crimp’s ‘The City’, I spent some time last week discussing ‘How Love is Spelt’ by Chloe Moss and ‘Eigengrau’ by Penelope Skinner. In different ways, these also use the urban space as a metaphor for constructing identity.

In ‘How Love is Spelt’ the central character, Peta, carries her building materials in from the outside world. Scene by scene she adopts attitudes and value systems as easily as the cardigan left by one of the strangers she invites to her bedsit. Then, when Colin – the lover she has run to the city to escape – finally arrives to take her home, she describes her discovery of a strange, almost fantastical, building near Crystal Palace. But attempting to locate it for a second time - with the hope of being able to tell Colin about it - she finds it has been completely demolished. Acts of construction and de-construction frame the play.

On the other hand, ‘Eigengrau’ is fascinating in the way it deals with the idea of ‘contingency’ in the city. Characters meet by accident and make fast, almost arbitrary, commitments to living spaces, friendships and ideologies. At the same time, a chorus of ‘voices’ manifests the city in broken extracts from Gumtree adverts. There is a sense that settled relationships are impossible – or, at least, under permanent existential threat - in an environment where movement, speed, conflict and coincidence are essential qualities. (‘Closer’ by Patrick Marber is probably the most famous play of recent years to explore this territory. Here, characters are pulled together momentarily by the ethereal figure of Alice, a binding agent or catalyst, whose reality is finally questioned by the play's mysterious resolution.) At the end of ‘Eigengrau’ two of the characters, Tim and Rose, form an ambiguous alliance – a happy ending, of sorts. But having created such a unit, it’s as if the metaphysics of the city can no longer accommodate them. They leave to live in Eastbourne.

By way of contrast, over the weekend I watched ‘The Village at the End of the World’, a documentary about a community of 59 people living in a remote corner of North East Greenland. One of the central characters is a teenager called Lars, whose aspirations and worldview are at odds with the ways of life surrounding him. Finally he leaves his home for one of the larger towns further south. This film seemed to re-enforce a key distinction between urban and non-urban stories. In the former, characters must confront contingency and continual restlessness. Peace can only be found beyond the city’s limits. In the latter, the act of leaving dramatises a contrasting desire for rebirth, free expression and change.